Not treating GERD can lead to cancer, but what could happen if you neglect to treat LPR?
LPR is common, and it’s common for people to seek treatment, as its symptoms are often not easy to ignore.
“Although untreated gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can slightly increase the risk of esophageal cancer over a long period of time, the connection between untreated laryngopharyngeal reflux (LPR) and head and neck cancer is much less clear,” says Gene Liu, MD, MMM, President, Chair, Department of Surgery; Chief, Division of Otolaryngology, Cedars-Sinai Medical Group.
Dr. Liu continues, “There are no studies in the ENT literature that show any cause and effect between LPR and cancer.”
Okay, so the cancer fear has been deactivated. But ignoring LPR won’t magically make it go away, either.
Untreated LPR in Young Kids
“In small children, there can be a link to other breathing problems such as noisy breathing (stridor), increased work of breathing (retractions) and even episodes of throat spasm or distress,” says Dr. Liu.
“There are even some concerns about possible scarring or narrowing of the airway or windpipe. In children, treatment of reflux becomes mandatory if growth and weight gain are affected or if breathing difficulty develops.”
Untreated LPR in Adults
“LPR in adults can lead to many frustrating symptoms including throat clearing, hoarseness, chronic cough and sore throat,” explains Dr. Liu.
“Typically, untreated LPR in adults will simply lead to these annoying symptoms continuing or worsening over time.”
What causes LPR in the first place?
Acid reflux is the cause. The refluxed acidic contents from the stomach reach as high up as the throat, sometimes even higher.
Just because you don’t have heartburn or other chest discomfort doesn’t mean you don’t have acidic stomach juices affecting your throat.
Many people with LPR do not report any burning or aching in the chest. In these patients the acid doesn’t remain in the esophagus long enough to produce such symptoms, but it can shoot up into the throat and linger long enough to irritate the vocal cords.
When it gets into the mouth it causes an odd taste which has been described as sour, bitter, foul or like cardboard. Some patients awaken with this taste in their mouth. Others get it when exercising or spontaneously.
When the acid makes contact with the vocal cords, the classic symptoms develop: throat discomfort, the need to frequently clear the throat, coughing, hoarseness, a lump feeling in the throat and even a sensation of difficulty breathing.
Anxiety can cause acid reflux which then leads to LPR. The person, in a state of ongoing anxiety, may have only mild symptoms that don’t really get their attention such as having to clear their throat before talking if they haven’t spoken for a while.
The annoying symptoms of LPR are not life-threatening, and failing to treat this condition is not known to cause or increase the risk of cancer.
Dr. Liu’s clinical areas of focus cover a broad range including surgery of the head and neck, sinuses and thyroid, and disorders of the ears, salivary glands and vocal cords.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.